Among the Presidents who have occupied the White House since my birth, President Barack Obama is one of the most literate. Historians who write about the American presidency after 2017 will be obligated to note that Obama tried to “write an honest account of a particular province” of his life in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995; New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004), and that he called for a new kind of politics in The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming The American Dream (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006). As they condemn or commend his policies and speeches, the wisest historians will not ignore that fact that he invited Elizabeth Alexander to bless his 2009 inauguration with a woman’s vision. Nor will they simply mention in passing that Richard Blanco gave some credibility to Obama’s virtue of tolerance in the 2013 inaugural poem. The most scholarly historians will dwell for more than a nanosecond on Tara T. Green’s conclusion in A Fatherless Child: Autobiographical Perspectives of African American Men (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009) that “Obama, then, shows the possibilities of escaping the pressures of social pitfalls as much as he proves the importance of black communities in the late twentieth century providing homes for those wandering black sons in need of understanding, healing and love” (132). All of the historians will direct attention to Obama’s September 14, 2015 conversation with Marilynne Robinson.
It may be the case that writers and politicians rarely have meaningful conversations, because such talks might draw undue attention to national insecurities. Robinson’s exchange of ideas with the President pivots on the topic of fear, the subject of her startling essay “Fear” in the September 24, 2015 issue of the New York Review of Books. Robinson apologizes to no one for her Calvinist-flavored Christianity, for her conviction that “[w]hen Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy”(30). Yet, Robinson warns us in disarmingly plain English that ” the making of Christianity in effect the official religion, is the first thing its [Christian “establishment”] supernumeraries would try for, and the last thing its faithful should condone”(30). Robinson’s essay provides an extended footnote for Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
(New York: Liveright, 2013), and her breezy recycling of Katznelson’s neoliberal analyses seems to have swept Obama into a remarkable instance of the indivisible unity of the literary and the political. Obama knows what kind of supernumeraries Donald Trump and Ben Carson are as they riff on the epistles of St. Paul and inundate us with exegeses of the Book of Revelation. He knows also why he needs to deflect attention from the impeccable satire of Paul Martinez Pompa’s “I Have a Drone” (see The BreakBeat Poets, pages 165-167) and to direct our gaze, with patriotic help from Robinson, to the sublime beauty of the Russian-manufactured Kalashnikov. As the elected Defender of American faith, he must wash us in the blood of the Second Amendment and satisfy our yearnings for violence and fear as the seven angels “pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth.” Marilynne Robinson and President Obama have given us a conversation to remember.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. October 27, 2015